Ryan Olcott isn’t just a musician. He’s a master tinkerer. The instruments and audio machines that surround the veteran Minneapolis musician in his home studio near Dinkytown have been tweaked and modified to the point where they’re best described as his own creations.
A multi-effect box on the table has about a dozen extra metal switches on the side. Each of the three Fender Toronado guitars hanging from the wall has a long knob at the butt—floating tremolo systems—that weren’t part of that model as originally manufactured. Then there’s an old knockoff Casio keyboard on the kitchen corner, the kind you might have found in Kmart in the ’80s, with a panel removed and a mess of wires peeking out.
At a time when programs like GarageBand and Ableton have made digital production relatively cheap and accessible, Olcott’s up to something totally different.
“I like experimenting with all the options I can find,” he says, surveying the room. “I usually acquire what I’m interested in and then decide at some point which one or how I want it really done and make that particular machine.”
There’s a tape machine on the table next to his workstation—a four-track that Olcott’s mother, an accomplished pianist, bought just before she died in 2004. As Olcott explains in rapid, excited bursts, that machine was key to the music on Parallel Partyverse, his new LP, released under the moniker c.Kostra.
To create the tracks, Olcott typically started with a sample, then layered his guitar and drums, then played these recordings through the four-track to re-record them. Producers have used tape machines to give digitally created music a warmer, more analog feel for nearly 30 years, but Olcott is taking that technique further—much further.
On the top right corner of the four-track, Olcott added a three-position switch that he uses to adjust the speed and stability of the motor, affecting the frequency and pitch of the music. The process is complex—initially, what emerges from the tweaked-out tape machine is a wobbly, distorted mess, and Olcott has to then methodically rebuild the tracks on his computer, using a metronome to keep the rhythm intact. The end result sounds bent or even crusty in unpredictable ways, yet cohesive and familiar.
“The anomalies that you hear—it all comes from making a tape machine work on the fringe edge of death,” Olcott says.
In the hands of a lesser songwriter than Olcott, known in the ’90s as the frontman for 12 Rods, this approach could yield music that’s more intellectually interesting than it is enjoyable to listen to. But while the music of c.Kostra is daring and experimental, and the process used to create it philosophically informed, it’s still fun.
Take “Holiday Music Stream,” the lead track on this latest release—a funky groove, with soulful horns and a catchy vocal hook, it’s nostalgic yet timeless, with a feel reminiscent of the Avalanches’ 2016 track “Became I’m Me.” But with its bent sound and stop-start effects, c.Kostra pushes the envelope.
Olcott is very much a musician’s musician, and the way his music combines complexity with accessibility has won him the respect of his peers. “It’s like you’re walking in on experimental music and pop in bed together. They are both cheating but you can’t tell on who,” says Mark Mallman, a longtime admirer who describes Olcott as “one of the best songwriters” he’s ever known.
“Ryan is this incredible percussionist with a grip on circuit-bending that permits him to find the rhythm in a glitch,” according to Mallman. “He can pick up a melody or a beat where other musicians might just hear noise. It’s like being able to see an ultraviolet color other musicians can’t see.”
Another fan is Minneapolis soul singer Lady Midnight, who says she wasn’t familiar with Olcott’s work with 12 Rods before she heard c.Kostra. “I feel like the sounds that he’s using, there’s this analog sense to it, but it does feel timeless because it feels like it could have happened at any time, like the ’80s or ’90s, the ’70s,” she says. “There’s kind of like a flirtation about it.”
When 12 Rods broke up in 2004, after a disastrous fling with a major label, the other members left town. Olcott didn’t. “They all split the scene; I was the only one left,” he says. “I got asked to do these jobs, which ended up being sound tech jobs, which is a pretty humbling experience—being somebody who was just on a major label and now you’re asked to do sound, for the dirgeiest of punk bands, and they’re laughing at you while you’re setting up their mics.”
Soon afterwards, Olcott started booking and doing sound for the Kitty Kat Club, where he’s been working now for the last 16 years. He says the job has helped keep him sharp, and he enjoys having the opportunity to help young musicians find their way. “You're just confronted with stuff every night and you have to make the best out of any situation and make sure everyone has a good time."
It wasn’t long before he was making his first forays into glitch music, tweaking machines and using the errors, or “anomalies,” as the building blocks of songs. He became an expert in circuit-bending (the practice of modifying synthesizers), which he explored in projects like Foodteam and Mystery Palace.
The work took a toll on him. “You’re just dealing with circuit boards and listening to atonalities and dissonance all the time,” he says. “You start to lose your mind after making like 60 or 70 pieces of gear. And it put me in a really bad state.”
He took a three-year break from music before starting the c.Kostra project in 2015. This time, he applied the glitch/circuit-bending approach to tape machines.
Olcott seems relatively unconcerned with commercial success these days. He and his partner, Nikki Pfeifer, who performs as Devata Daun, run their own label, Pytch Records, and Olcott values the independence that allows. These days process seems to be as important to him as the music itself.
“I want to express that you don’t need Ableton, you don’t need all of these incredibly proficient machines or softwares that just become boring to use,” he says. “There’s like a billion things out there, for really cheap, to recycle and learn how to make completely fun music.... Let’s make it hard for ourselves again and let’s discover what we like about low-fi music.”
For Mallman, Olcott’s dedication to producing the music he wants the way he wants is part of his appeal. “I mean there’s nobody in the world on the musical trip Ryan Olcott is on,” he says. “If he’d been met with commercial success early on he’d be Thom Yorke by now. Ryan is and always has been ahead of the curve, and ahead of the times. But I feel that as far as he’s concerned, time doesn’t matter. I feel that he’s speaking a truth without concern for trends, and that’s a place all art should come from.”